Aliens Invade: The Day the Earth Stood Still and and The Thing

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked. 
Image courtesy of EmoviePoster

By far the most popular type of science fiction film in the 1950s were the alien invasion films.  The peak of their popularity was in the early to mid 1950s which also matched the most unsettling time of the cold war.  The cycle of alien invasion films began in earnest in America with two films in 1951, The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  These films were remarkably similar in structure but contain almost diametrically opposed ideas.  The tension in the films clustered around the relationship between the scientists, military and alien invaders.  The scientist was depicted in both films as being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being in conflict with the military in how to deal with the aliens.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien flying saucer landed in Washington with an important message to the people of the world.  The politicians didn’t want to talk to the alien as a group because of mutual suspicions and hatreds, while the military just wanted to blast him.  The alien Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, seemed to be a sober non-threatening being with exceptional intelligence.  He had great power at his command and with a few twirls of the dial of the saucer could bring the world to a momentary halt.  The military reacted to this demonstration by wanting him destroyed, while the scientists wanted to hear his message.  Klaatu’s message was that the world must stop the spread of nuclear of weapons or face destruction.

Screenwriter Edmund H. North and director Robert Wise played on the sympathies of the American audience by showing Klaatu admiring the Lincoln monument.  He told a child that Lincoln looked like a great man, the type of man who would listen to his important message to the world.  The child replied that there was a man like that working in Washington called Dr Barnhardt.  By using the icon of Lincoln in the film, the screenwriter and director were indicating to the audience that Klaatu’s message was important and correct.  North and Wise then linked the wisdom of Lincoln to the scientists.  The scientist Dr Barnhardt was obviously based on the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, who was another icon of scientific and philosophical wisdom in the 1950s.[1]  By combing the icon on Einstein, who represented scientific wisdom with Lincoln, who represented political wisdom, the filmmakers were packaging their message for an American audience.  Even further, Klaatu was brought back to life when killed by the military, perhaps indicating a spiritual dimension to his message as well.

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked.  Communism was not only a political threat to the United States, but since the development of nuclear weapons, it carried the threat of physical extinction.  The liberal vision of a planetary United Nations protecting common interests was one of the few positive images of the science fiction films of the 1950s.  The Day The Earth Stood Still belonged with the brief flowering of liberal films of the early 1950s.  It argued that nations should meet to thrash out their differences before it was too late.  Time and time again, it referred to the world’s ‘petty squabbles’ with a tone to suggest that they were adolescent temper tantrums.  The world should grow up and put aside nuclear weapons as ways of resolving disputes.  This would mean negotiation and discussions with the Russians which was brave suggestion in 1951.  Despite its popularity, The Day the Earth Stood Still did not begin a cycle of science fiction films with liberal leanings.  Although It Came From Outer Space (1953) was a notable exception, the vast majority of aliens in popular science fiction films of the 1950s were hostile towards the aliens.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed.  A saucer landed in the Arctic near the North Pole and the military outpost stationed there was sent out to investigate.  They discovered flying saucer under the ice and a frozen alien.  The saucer was accidently destroyed, but the alien was taken back to camp encased in ice.

The crucial conflict in the film was not with the alien but between the military and the scientists over how to deal with the alien.  The scientists wanted to communicate with the alien in order to benefit mankind, while the military wanted to destroy it in order to save mankind.  The scientists headed by Dr Carrington believed that ‘There are no enemies in science, just phenomenon to study.’[2]  He didn’t realise the enormous threat from the alien, although he described it in chilling terms.  IT was a creature without ‘pain or pleasure’ which Dr Carrington envied for having ‘no emotions and no heart’.[3]  The communist system in Russia was also viewed as ‘scientific’, a system which worked along rational principles but ignored the role of the individual.  Carrington represented all these fears.[4]

Near the conclusion of the film, the tensions between the scientists and the military came to a head as Dr Carrington approached the rampaging alien to talk of peace.  Carrington was killed by the alien which then meets its doom at the hands of the military.  Screenwriter Ledered and Director Nyby – with the assistance of veteran Howard Hawks – were saying that in times of threat such as during the Cold War, scientists must defer to the military.  Scientists had to be geared to national interests.  When the scientist joined forces with the military, then the alien forces could be destroyed.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The image of Dr Carrington being knocked aside was one which constantly recurred in films of the 1950s.  Horror writer Stephen King believed The Thing was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[5]  He wrote that for the average America, the scientists were deservedly vilified in American cinema in the 1950s as it was this group which had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[6]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

The alien in The Thing was a popular depiction of communism.  It was a mobile vegetable and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the Untied States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at any early stage, then the threat would simply grow until it became impossible to resist.  This was the logic of Cold War containment which drive the United States into the Korean War and later to the Vietnam War.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’[7]

It was the message and the images contained in The Thing that really dominated American science fiction cinema for the next six or seven years.  Appeasement meant destruction and appeasers were either traitors or fools who ended getting killed.  Despite its low budget, The Thing was one of the most successful science fiction films of the year, narrowly edging out The Day the Earth Stood Still.[8]  The success of these two films reflected an uncertainty by Americans on how to deal with the Russians.  One film argued that the nuclear threat needed to be addressed and the world should stop its petty squabbles, while the other said the appeasement caused destruction.  The popularity of both films indicated both the importance and the uncertainty of the issue in the American mind.


[1] Ronald W Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, Avon, New York, 1984, pp. 659 – 710 discusses Einstein’s political role in post-war United States.

[2] The Thing RKO/Winchester (Howard Hawks), (d) Christian Nyby, (w) Charles Lederer.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Other films latched onto the fear of a society based on scientific principles.  In The Street With No Name (1948), gangster Alec Stiles, played by Richard Widmark, wanted to ‘build an organisation along scientific lines.’

[5] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, MacDonald, London, 1981, p.173.

[6] ibid, p. 174.

[7] The Thing op cit.

[8] The Thing (1951) made $1.9 million profit, while The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) made $1.85 million.  See Hardy, Science Fiction, p. 387.

The evangelical nature of When World's Collide

When Worlds Collide (1951) which dealt with the destruction of the planet Earth.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Nuclear fears of annihilation haunted the 1950s. This depressing view of world destruction continued in George Pal’s next film: When Worlds Collide. Many science fiction films had dealt with the destruction or breakdown of society, but the physical end of the planet was virtually a new area.[1] Cecil B. DeMille had originally been slated for the film in a much earlier period. The rights to the story by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer were originally bought in 1933 by Paramount, when director DeMille was planning a related project called “The End of the World.” DeMille had hoped to rush the project into production after filming wrapped on This Day and Age (1933), but the script was never even written and the studio scrapped the project.

In When Worlds Collide scientists discovered that a new sun and its planet were spinning across the galaxy toward earth.  The planet would move close to the earth, causing tidal waves and mass destruction, and then the new sun would engulf the earth.  The only hope for civilisation was a small spacecraft which could hop planets just before the fatal collision.  The film opened with biblical saying:

And God looked upon the earth and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth … And God said unto Noah, ‘The end of flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and , behold I will destroy them with the earth…[2]

This was remarkably close to the vision of evangelist Billy Graham who, after President Truman had announced a nuclear weapon had been exploded in the Soviet Union, had preached in 1949 that the choice for America was now between religious revival and nuclear judgement.  The choice was between western culture founded on religion, and communism which was against all religion.  The country had abandoned the ten commandments and faced judgement for its misdeeds.[3]  In 1949, he delivered a sermon on the fate of the United States which rang with biblical doom.

Let us look for a moment at the political realm.  Let’s see what is happening – not only in the city of Los Angeles, but in the western world.  The world is divided into two sides.  ON the one side we see so-called Western culture.  Western culture and its fruit had its foundation in the bible, the Word of God, and in the revivals of he Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Communism on the other hand, had decided against God, against Christ, against the bible, against all religion.  Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life – Communism is a religion that is directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against almighty God.  Do you know that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?  We need a revival.[4]

Just as God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, and the Roman empire, he would destroy the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, if it strayed any longer or further from the moral path.  The nuclear threat was a biblical judgement for moral failings.  These speeches were the catalyst which launched Graham to become a nationwide media celebrity.

Graham’s apocalyptic vision of nuclear judgement resonated throughout When Worlds Collide.  The conclusion of the film showed the earth burning as it approached the surface of he new sun.  Nuclear-like explosions ripped from its surface as it was absorbed.  This image must have terrified the American public of the 1950s with its connotations of nuclear destruction.  The most chilling part of When Worlds Collide was the inevitable nature of the destruction of the earth, just as the cold war promised an inevitable nuclear conflagration.  The film may have reassured an American public at one level by showing that life would continue in some form after nuclear destruction.  However, with its biblical judgement of corruption and the inevitable nature of the world’s destruction, it was an uncomfortable film to watch.


[1][1] The theme had been used before in a film called The Comet (1910) and two German films Himmelskibet (1917) and Verdens Undergang (1916).  The two German films probably reflected some of the gloom as the First World War dragged on.  A few science fiction films saw the collapse of society such as the British film Things to Come (1936).  See the introduction to Phil Hardy, (ed.). Science Fiction: The Complete Film Sourcebook, William Morrow, New York, 1984 for a discussion of the trend.

[2] When Worlds Collide Paramount (George Pal), (w) Sidney Boehm, (d) Rudolp Mate.

[3] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America since World War II, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 65.

[4] William Graham, Revival in Our Time: The Story of Billy Graham Evangelistic Campaign Evangelistic Campaigns, Including Six Of His Sermons, 2nd edn enl. Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, Illinois, 1950, pp. 72-73.

Science fiction explores communism

Invaders filled the screens of cinemas and drive-ins across the United States in the 1950s.  Aliens blasted ray guns, rose from the depths of the sea, took over human bodies, mutated in atomic testing sites, flew flying saucers, lurked in swamps and wasted cities in their wrath.  Many films critics have seen the alien invasion films as representing American fears of communist invasion and subversion.[1]  The themes of these films clustered around fears of communist military strength.  The United States had both the biggest economy and enormous military powers, yet it found itself threatened by the USSR armed with nuclear weapons.  Communists were seen as an evil, beyond even religious redemption, and they now possessed weapons which could destroy the United States.  It was a crushing fear that haunted the 1950s.  A fear that science fiction helped ease.

The sheer number of films produced means they cannot be overlooked in any survey of films dealing with communism.  It has been estimated that 154 alien films were released in the United States during the 1950s.[2]  These films were not overwhelming box office success, but the fact that they enjoyed continued popularity indicates that they were striking a chord.

The most popular science fiction films of the decade in descending order (taking inflation into account) were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which finished fourth in 1954 making $8 million in rentals, Journey to the Centre of the Earth which finished 11th in the 1959 making $4.7 million, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms made $2 million in 1953, The Thing finished 47th in 1951 making $1.95 million, The Day the Earth Stood Still finished 52nd in 1951 making $1.8 million, War of the Worlds made $2 million in 1953, Them! Finished 50th in 1954 making $2.2 million, When World’s Collide finished 72nd in 1951, It Came from Outer Space made $1.65 million in 1953, This Island Earth was ranked 75th in 1955 making $1.7 million, It Came from Beneath the Sea was ranked 76th in 1955, Forbidden Planet was ranked 62nd in 1956 making $1.6 million, Destination Moon was ranked 88th in 1950 making $1.3 million.  Other films which made the Variety lists included The Fly (1958), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Rocketship X-M (1950) and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).[3]  The films were not an overwhelming success yet there was, nonetheless, a steady market for them.

Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The first successful science fiction films of the decade owed their popularity to special effects rather than tight script writing, yet there were still strong anti-communist themes.  Producer George Pal’s trademark was his exceptional special effects and his first effort was an uncomplicated film called Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  General Thayer explained these ideas to a meeting of businessman called to raise money for he project.

The reason is quite simple.  We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached.  We are not the only ones who are planning to get there.  The race is on.  And we will win, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack force form outer space.  The first country to use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the earth.  That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.[4]

An elderly businessman stood up at the end of the Thayer’s speech and said it was the duty of business to support the venture.[5]  Control of space would mean world domination.  The impact of this idea was later seen in the panic that gripped America in the wake of the Sputnik launch in 1957 as people feared nuclear weapons could be launched from space on a defenceless United States.

Destination Moon also suggested that communists were at work subverting the American space program – and by implication other industries.  The moon launch project was hampered by bureaucratic obstacles and the threat of something more sinister.  The scientific group received a telegram from a commission which prohibited a launch, as a protest meeting had been called to stop the launch.  Jim answered that it was ‘propaganda’ and that someone with money and brains was ‘out to get us’.[6]  The underlying tone of the film was that dissent, even democratic dissent, was identical to treason when trying to stop progress.  Jim’s remarkable statement about public opinion equaling propaganda reflected the blinkered approach that the authorities had in dealing with dissent.  Even a protest against an atomic missile launch was organised by malevolent forces out to undermine American security.  The film fitted in neatly with the studios’ anti-communist rhetoric of the early 1950s.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  The space crew left earth, were sent off course and landed on Mars.  The crew found that Mars an advanced civilization had been wiped out by nuclear warfare was now inhabited by hostile mutant aliens.  The crew returned to earth to deliver a warning about nuclear warfare.  Unknown World (1950) had a similar bleak message about the world’s future.  Scientist Kilian believed that the world was headed for nuclear devastation and perhaps some hope lay in burrowing beneath the earth’s surface.  The film began with a montage of nuclear explosions and devastation and the voice of Kilian calling for help in finding a safe and secure world.  Headed by Kilian, a small party set off to dig beneath the surface, but the world they found was sterile and they were forced to return to the surface.  If Kilian was correct, then there was no escape from nuclear destruction.


[1] Among others are Peter Biskind, Seeing is believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Pantheon, New York, 1983 and Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982.  Not all critics share this viewpoint see Patrick Luciano, Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1987 for Jungian interpretation of the alien invasion cycle.

[2] The filmography in Luciano, Them or Us, lists 154 films, but it must be treated with caution as Luciano tends to throw in any type of related film to build up his case.  The number can only be used as a guide.

[3] The lists were printed in Variety 4 January 1950, 3 January 1951, 2 January 1952, 7 January 1953, 6 January 1954, 5 January 1955, 25 January 1956, 2 January 1957 and 8 January 1958.  The lists derive from John Fleming, ‘Science Fiction, printed in David Pirie (ed.) Anatomy of the Movies, Macmillian, New York, pp. 272 – 281, which are also based on the Variety lists.

[4] Destination Moon, (d) George Pal, (w) Rip Van Ronkel, Robert Heinlein, James O’Hanlon

[5] Destination Moon op cit.

[6] ibid.

The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

High Noon and its successors

Riding Shotgun also had anti-McCarthyism themes. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

High Noon had many successors which took up the various themes about McCarthyism in differing ways.  Riding Shotgun (1954) again looked at the political situation in allegorical terms, but with disdain for the hysteria created by McCarthy.  A respected guard on the stage coach Larry Delon, played by Randolph Scott, attempted to warn the town of an impending raid on the town’s ‘Bank Club’ by a gang of criminals.  Delon was almost lynched by the townspeople who believed that he was responsible for the shooting of a stagecoach.  A posse was formed to chase the outlaws who were actually planning to rob the undefended town.  Delon was bailed up in a building throughout the film while the town attempted to lynch him.  Eventually the outlaws raided and Delon foiled the robbery and regained the town’s respect.  The film was not as sharp in its criticism of the worn as in High Noon, but there were some strong scenes where Scott walked through the town with every eye on him, thinking; ‘The city had already tried and found me guilty.[1]  The film was not critical of the law enforcement agencies as the deputy Sheriff was depicted as a sensible man desperately trying to see that no one gets hurt in the town’s desire to lynch Scott.

Unlike High Noon, the film showed that the town was willing to fight, but needed firm leadership.  Without that leadership, the town could turn into a lynch-mob and attack the innocent.  Riding Shotgun was a conservative film that asked for respect for the traditional law enforcement, rather than the hysteria of the mob.

Although not strictly a western, as it was set in contemporary America, Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear cut attacks on the McCarthyite era within the genre.  Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, who was one of the petitioners for Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, and produced by Dore Schary who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.  Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[2]  It was clear that these events had an impact of the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, was a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  His aim was to give to a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years and the townspeople were clearly threatened by his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’  The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno who was a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer to be a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[3]

Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  He manipulated and terrified the people of the town with the crime.  He described Macreedy as a ‘virus’ which had given the town a fever and had to be destroyed.  Very similar to the way, McCarthy depicted communists as an infection of the American political system.  The Sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, was ineffectual and complaint to Reno’s orders, just as McCarthy blustered his way over the legal system.  Others simply tried to ignore the crime and remained in apathetic fear.  When Macreedy faced and defeated Reno, the town was forced to face the collective guilt of their silence.  The conclusion of the film was optimistic as it showed the town could prosper again with the departure of Reno, just as the American community had to realize the enormity of the damage inflicted by the McCarthyite era before it could begin to move forward again.

The Fastest Gun Alive continued the themes of High Noon. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Other films carried similar messages to High Noon throughout the 1950s.  In At Gunpoint (1955) a shopkeeper played by Fred MacMurray killed a bank robber with a lucky shot.  He was called a hero, but his fellow townspeople deserted him when the robbers plotted reprisals.  MacMurray eventually convinced the town to fight and they defeated the outlaws when they return.  In The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), the townspeople cower in a church while a gunslinger threatened to burn down the town unless their reluctant local hero cam out for a showdown.  They eventually forced him out to face the villain.

In The Tin Star (1957), a sheriff had to stand up to a town turned into a lynch mob to re-establish the authority of law and order.  The prisoners inside his jail were clearly guilty and it was certain they would be hanged or jailed.  The film argued that the lynch mob was not the answer.  Only when the leader of the lynchers was stared down, humiliated and then destroyed did peace come to the town.  If the mob was equated with McCarthyism, the legal approach of the sheriff was the best way for American society to go.  The central figure was a man similar to High Noon’s Will Kane who was bitter and resentful about society but at the end of the film, he picked up ‘the tin star’ to renew the fight against criminals.[4]  Law and order depended on the professional pride and determination of law enforcement officers.  Without them, the weak townspeople would be at the mercy of the bandits and agitators.  The central theme of these films was that the town by its inaction or corruption could collapse into lawlessness.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract.  A stranger played by Audie Murphy rode into town and registered at a hotel.  He was John Gant who made his living goading people into a fight and then killing them in self defence.  His appearance caused a slow breakdown of the town as prominent citizens remembered guilty secrets of the past and were afraid that he has been sent to kill them.  Old antagonisms began to rise an people committed suicide or left town or tried to bribe Gant. The films focused on what fear can do to people.  If you were Gant’s target then you were already dead.  The most effective scenes were when a banker with a guilty secret in his past attempted to buy Gant off the trail.  But Gant would not leave the town until his intended victim was dead.  The law enforcement officers can’t stop him as he was too deadly with the gun, and even managed to stare down the entire town when they tried to drive him out.  The atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervaded the film with Gant’s arrival and Murphy’s edgy performance as Gant make it one of the most effective successors to High Noon.  At the end of the film, Gant ensured that his target was dead, but he was wounded and rode away.  He could certainly return and wreck havoc again.


[1] Riding Shotgun Warner, (d) Andre De Toth, (w) Tom Blackburn.

[2] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 700-716.

[3] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman

[4] One of the sources for High Noon was a story called The Tin Star by John Cunningham which appeared in Colliers on 6 December 1947.  Behlmer, p. 270.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer Strategic Communication, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Johnny Guitar (1954) was also directed against HUAC in a different way to High Noon.  In the film, Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, returned to this estranged lover Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, who owned a disreputable bar.  A stage robbery occurred in town, and a banker was killed.  The dead man’s sister Emma Small, played by Mercedes McCambridge, convinced a wealthy rancher John McIvers, played by Ward Bond, that the crime had been committed by the Dancin’ Kid, Corey ad Young Turkey, when they were innocent.  Small was jealous of the Dancin’ Kid’s attraction to Vienna.  The accused trio decided to rob a bank since they were being forced to flee the area anyway.  Small made the bank teller swear that Vienna was involved in the robbery.  In response, a posse rode to Vienna’s bar and burned it down.  The posse hanged the injured Turkey who was hiding there.  Eventually, the posse learned the truth about Emma and stood back while Emma and Vienna shoot it out.  Vienna killed Emma and rode off with Johnny.

The plot had all the elements of a standard western plot, even a final shootout, yet it can be read as a political film.  The outlaws can be seen as communists who were blamed for every wrongdoing in town.  Critic Michael Wilmington argued that former gun-man Johnny, represented an ex-Communist called before the HUAC.  Wilmington saw Vienna as a fellow traveller and Emma as a vindictive witness or a politician who used the investigations to destroy the careers of rivals.  McIvers represented big business or law enforcement authorities which, while basically good, had succumbed to the pressure of McCarthy’s tirades.  The townspeople were the American middle class.[1]

Lynching was a key theme in Johnny guitar. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Wilmington’s argument can be taken further, Turkey was promised that he could be saved when he was caught by the posse if he would point an accusatory figure at Vienna.  For Ray and writer Yordan, this was the dilemma of the witnesses before the HUAC investigators.  The fact that he was hung was a reminder that informing did not guarantee survival.  Critic Danny Peary contended that Emma’s attack on Vienna was similar to the techniques used by McCarthyite investigators who assumed that social deviance of any kind was an indication of communism.[2]

The personal political viewpoints of the actors were also interesting. Ward Bond, who was one of the leaders of the lynching party, was President for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which helped HUAC weed out communists in Hollywood.  Sterling Hayden, who played Johnny Guitar, testified before the committee and regretted it all of his life.  Hayden wrote in his autobiography about his testimony that: ‘Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he despises.  I subscribed to a press clipping service.  They sent me two thousand clips from papers, east and west, large and small, and from dozens of magazines.  Most had nothing but praise for my on-shot stoolie.  Only a handful – led by the New York Times – denounced this abrogation of constitutional freedom.’[3]  This casting may have been deliberate or accidental.  Yet the end result was to have actual participants acting out their roles in a political allegory.

Ina Lonely Place, also directed by Ray, did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Apart from Johnny Guitar, Ray had already attacked the investigations in In A Lonely Place (1950).  James W. Palmer, writes about in  ‘In a Lonely Place: Paranoia in the Dream Factory’, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 12, 1985, No. 3, pp. 202 – 210.  The film did not discuss the political situation in Hollywood, but it was a commentary on the HUAC-inspired witch hunt, the blacklisting and the paranoia that affected the film industry.  The film focused on a writer Dixon Steele, played by Humphrey Bogart, who had been rejected by the Hollywood community.  Since returning from the war, he had been unable to write and his drinking and aggressive behavior had led to him become an isolated figure in the Hollywood community.  At the beginning of the film, he invited a hatcheck girl back to his apartment for her to tell him the story of a book which he might turn into a movie.  Dixon sent the woman home and the next morning, her body was found brutally murdered.  Steele was considered to be a prime suspect by the police.  After being questioned and then released by the police, Steele was further isolated by the Hollywood community who saw him as guilty.  Bu the end of the film, Steele, who was a violent man, became a borderline psychotic.  After succumbing to the pressure, he attacked his fiancé and his life was ruined, even though he was eventually cleared of the murder charge.  Steele with his persecutions and paranoia can be read as a symbol of the Hollywood Ten.

This group were a part of the Hollywood community until accused of the ‘crime’ of communism.  Eventually they were abandoned by the community to their own fate.  Film critic James W. Palmer noted that everybody in the film was guilty of not supporting people in need.  He wrote that the real crime was the undermining of human trust through a process of social exclusion.

Ray’s allegorical attack against HUAC in Johnny Guitar probably would have gone over the heads of its audience of the time.  No evidence exists in any reviews of Johnny Guitar that anyone considered it anymore than an interesting western with strong performances from both Crawford and McCambridge.  Indeed Nora Sayre in her survey of cold war films, mentions it only in passing as a light entertainment.[4]  A member of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr. had never heard of the film,[5] although Ray has insisted that contemporary audience got the message about the lynching party being a McCarthyite investigation.[6]

Previous version of this blog at:

https://kevinbrianton.com/westerns-huac-johnny-guitar-1954/


[1] Michael Wilmington, ‘Johnny Guitar’ Velvet Light Trap Spring 1974 in Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, pp. 171-172.

[2] Ibid, p. 172.

[3] Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, Knopf, New York, 1973, p. 366

[4] Nora Saryre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, p. 173.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at a Public Seminar of the Australian Film Institute on 6 March 1991. (Notes taken by author).

[6] Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, ‘Nicholas Ray: Rebel!’, Take One, Vol 5, No. 6, (January) p. 11.

High Noon for HUAC

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Westerns hold pride of place in American cinema.  They retold the legends and myths of America’s frontier past and had been a feature of cinema virtually since its inception.  In the 1950s, hundreds of westerns were made which dealt with many aspects of American life.  It was perhaps inevitable, with the stifling of direct political criticism, and the pressing concerns of McCarthyism and communism, that westerns would take on a political dimension in the 1950s.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1947 investigation proved to be only a testing of the waters for HUAC.  The Hollywood 10 went to prison in September 1950 and the committee re-gathered momentum to pounce on Hollywood again.  The Hollywood 10’s imprisonment had increased the power of HUAC to make it feared throughout the film industry.  Director Joseph Losey told an interviewer that ‘the most terrifying thing about the atmosphere was seeing people succumb, and seeing all protest disappear.  Because if you did protest, you’d had it.’[1]  The second HUAC investigations were to be larger and more systematic and they destroyed the remnants of the liberal-left in Hollywood without any effective opposition.  In the middle of these rising fears about HUAC’s return, Carl Foremen was writing the screenplay for a western called High Noon.

The film was about the desperate efforts of the Sheriff Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, to get help from the townspeople to fight Frank Miller and his gang, who were being released from jail that day, and who had promised revenge on the town and Kane.  Miller, who Kane put in prison for murder, had been pardoned, and his gang were gathering at train station to meet when the train arrived at noon.  Kane approached all the town leaders for assistance to fight Miller but they all abandoned him.  The town and church leaders demanded that he leave town, claiming that the gang would leave the town alone if he was not there.  Kane failed in his attempts and faced the gunmen alone.  After defeating the four outlaws, Kane threw his badge onto the street in disgust at the town and left.  The screenwriter wanted the audience to equate the people of Cooper’s town with those who suddenly deserted their blacklisted friends in Hollywood.

Kane’s disgust equaled Foreman’s as friends humbled themselves and begged for help from the Hollywood community without success.  Foreman had been called to testify in front of HUAC and intended to be an un-co-operative witness. He said his friends began turning their backs on him even though he was not a communist:

My associates were afraid for themselves – I don’t believe them – and tried to get off the film, unsuccessfully.  They went to Gary Cooper and he refused (to go along with them).  Fred Zimmerman, too, was very staunch and very loyal, so was out backer, Bruce Church.

There are scenes in the film that are taken from life.  The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers.  And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and come back with his gun and asks, where are the others?  Cooper says there no others … I became the Gary Cooper character.[2]

Foreman depicted Hollywood society in a poor light as the threat of McCarthyism approached.  The pillars of the community were afraid that a gunfight would jeopardise business and possible future investment in the town and urged Kane to leave.  Their attitude was similar to the studio heads who abandoned their employees on the slightest of pretexts to avoid bad publicity and poor box office returns.  The religious leaders also pulled back from Kane because they cannot sanction violence.  He was only offered help by only a 14 year old boy and the town drunk and he turned down both.  The retired marshal wanted to help but could not because of his arthritis.

The point of the film was that the town united could have easily defeated the threat.  Instead the Hollywood community pursued their own individual selfish ends and were torn apart.  The point was not lost after the film’s release and Foreman was blacklisted for his efforts for many years.  He was ‘morosely pleased’ when the message of the film was understood by the conservatives.[3]

Grace Kelly supports her husband in High Noon Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

High Noon was one of the most important westerns of the 1950s and many films followed its pattern of a lone law officer facing a threat to the town.  Foreman certainly had no doubts when he wrote the screenplay that the town was Hollywood and the four men approaching represented HUAC and when the film was released The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote:

It is a story that bears a close resemblance to things that are happening today where people are traumatised by bullies and surrendering their freedoms … (Kane) is a man with the sense to meet a challenge, not duck and hope it will go away … The marshal can give a few lessons to the people of Hollywood today.[4]

However, it is doubtful whether the audience of the time saw it in that light.  One of the Hollywood 10, Ring Lardner Jr, who knew Carl Foreman, said he could see no anti-HUAC message in the film beyond the general theme of standing up for oneself.[5]  If members of the Hollywood 10, who were more sensitive on the topic did not get the message, and knew the screenwriter, what hope was there for the general audience.  The film had an anti-HUAC message but it is uncertain whether that message got across to the audience.  Director Zinnemann said he did not make films to prove anything.[6]

The film can also be read as a defence of McCarthy with a lone figure standing  up against the communist threat.  The heroic figure of Kane could be seen as McCarthy desperately trying to awaken the community to the impending threat of communism.  Critic Phillip French has also suggested that the film was about the United States reluctantly renewing its role in world affairs.[7]  High Noon started a cycle of movies with the lone or aloof law official figure, struggling with both the town and some form of menace on the horizon.  Something in that formula clicked with the audience and the film finished eighth in the box office for 1952.[8]  The audience responded to the film but it is unclear to exactly what they were responding.


[1] Tom Milne (ed.). Losey on Losey, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968, p. 90.

[2] Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes: The Making of, Samuel French, New York, 1990, p. 276.

[3] Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of he Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982, p. 176.

[4] New York Times, 3 August 1952.

[5] Ring Lardner Jr. at an Australian Film Institute Seminar on 26 March 1991.  (Notes taken by author).

[6] Behimer, Behind p. 277.

[7] Phillip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Genre, Secker and Warburg, London, 1977, p. 35

[8] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, p. 21.